Review by Sarah Wetzel-Fishman
THE VEILED SUITE, THE COLLECTED POEMS
by Agha Shahid Ali
W.W. Norton & Co.
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10110
2009, 512 pp., $29.95
“One more truth about the condition we call exile is that it accelerates tremendously one’s otherwise professional flight—or drift—into isolation, into an absolute perspective: into the condition in which all one is left with is oneself and one’s own language, with nobody or nothing in between.”
– Joseph Brodsky in “The Condition We Call Exile.”
From Ovid and Dante to Brodsky and Milosz, exile has often been the lot of the poet. The pain can be excruciating as the exiled, cut off from familiar culture and landscape, as well as from families and associates, lives in a state of dislocation and dispossession. Dante writes in “Paradiso” from The Divine Comedy:
. . . You will leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You will know how salty
another’s bread tastes and how hard it
is to ascend and descend
another’s stairs . . .
At the same time, exile can become an imaginative action that liberates the creative mind. In his book, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, Walter Brueggemann writes of what he calls “the metaphor of exile” that lives in opposition to the surrounding culture and finds that “only memory allows possibility” of return to “home.” Returning home, if only in the mind, thus becomes the writerly obsession. Brueggemann was speaking of the biblical poets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, but it just as well could have been of many of our most beloved poets, who from nullity found the capacity to create newness. So it seemed for Dante, and so too it seemed for the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, as his poems, collected for the first time in The Veiled Suite, demonstrate.